Best audiobooks of 2022 from the NY Times

The Best Audiobooks of 2022

Hearing a memoir in the author’s voice can make a big difference, and not just when the author is Viola Davis. Plus: A creepy novel gets creepier in audio.

Credit…Sakshi Jain

By Lauren Christensen

Dec. 7, 2022

As I’ve taken stock of the 400-ish hours of audiobooks I’ve listened to this year — many for work, some not, in a car or on a plane, walking the dogs or just at home, giving my eyes a needed break from books and screens — it’s become clear: The best reading experiences do not necessarily translate into the best listening ones. Or vice versa.

If books require you to imagine the narrator, characters and setting, and film requires you to imagine none of that, then the audiobook medium lives somewhere in between: giving a specific voice and cadence to the words, while leaving the rest of the mental picture up to us. Some of my favorite books have been adapted into audiobooks that sound nothing like the world I’d imagined in hardcover: The narrator is too earnest or affected, the pacing too soporific, a production effect too intrusive.

That’s what makes it so sublime when an audiobook gets it just right. The six titles below will take you to corners of your brain you’ve never been.

Maybe it’s because this is a book about digital universes, but listening to Gabrielle Zevin’s TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW (13 hours, 52 minutes) proved even more transporting for me than the already moving hardcover. In a voice as sensitive as it is sharp, the actor Jennifer Kim envelops the listener in the worlds, both real and imagined, of Sam Masur and Sadie Green, brainy and precocious video game developers who first meet in a children’s hospital at 11, and build an unconventional, decades-long partnership from there. It’s a brilliant way to confront the philosophically unwieldy notion of death, and its finality: In a game like Super Mario Bros., or Sam and Sadie’s “Ichigo,” players have an allotted number of lives, and every time they die, they can try again.

Actual life, of course, is another story: How could everything be over, and that’s just it — no more chances? Kim reads one of Zevin’s most brutal passages with a paradoxical mix of whimsy and gravitas, capturing a young person discovering one’s ephemerality for the first time: “You are a gaming person,” the narrator says, addressing a character who’s met the end in real life. “Which is to say you are the kind of person who believes that ‘game over’ is a construction. The game is only over if you stop playing. There is always one more life.”

One of the particular pleasures of audiobooks is the chance to hear an author read his or her own memoir into your ear. In STAY TRUE (5 hours, 28 minutes), the journalist Hua Hsu recalls compiling the eulogy he wrote and delivered for his friend Ken, who died unexpectedly before their senior year at Berkeley. But the book itself is a kind of eulogy, to friendship, to adolescence, to all the naïve promise of 1990s California. Hsu’s voice is as direct and unadorned as his prose, allowing the power of his words to speak for itself. I felt as if I was up late listening to my own friend bear his soul, remembering the past in all its unfiltered honesty: the bad memories swerving through the good; the zines and the raves and the mix tapes on the car stereo.

This next audiobook requires a word of caution: The author pulls you so far down her psychological rabbit hole that it can be difficult, emotionally speaking, to crawl back out. In BLOOD ORANGE NIGHT: My Journey to the Edge of Madness (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hours, 19 minutes), Melissa Bond recounts the years — years — she spends at the mercy of insomnia, and then of the medicine that never should have been prescribed to treat it: Ativan. For everything we now know about the criminal over-distribution of legal opioids, there is comparatively less information out there about the highly addictive and medically hazardous class of drugs known as benzodiazepines. Bond, a mother of two children, reads the passages of anguish and heartbreak — she watches her family suffer the consequences of her dwindling livelihood — with as much genuine pathos as she delivers the frightening research and statistics. This audiobook is not just a memoir, but also a chilling true-crime story.

That Viola Davis would know how to read the hell out of an audiobook is no surprise; but what makes FINDING ME (9 hours, 15 minutes) so gripping is that not one syllable of this actor’s memoir feels like an act. Raised in poverty in Rhode Island, the granddaughter of sharecroppers from South Carolina revisits the painful, sobering and joyful moments of her coming-of-age under the inspiring parentage of “MaMama,” Mae Alice Davis, whose strength and idiosyncrasies come alive in her daughter’s voice the way they simply can’t on the page.

Why do creepy books feel even creepier in audio? Something about shutting the world out with noise-canceling headphones made me feel as though I, too, were locked inside a suspicious long-term care center with Penny, the heroine of WE SPREAD (5 hours, 58 minutes), by Iain Reid. The narrator, Robin Miles, paces the slow-building suspense perfectly, leaving the listener as disoriented and distraught as Penny, grappling with the loss of her independence — and her self — at the end of her life.

If sometimes the in-your-face eroticism of romance fiction can take the listener out of the scene, the narrator Barrie Kreinik reads Michelle Hart’s steamy debutWE DO WHAT WE DO IN THE DARK (4 hours, 58 minutes), with a heat that is at once thrilling and complex enough to hold you breathless. When Mallory, an undergraduate student, enters into a relationship with an older, German, married female professor, the balance of power is uncertain and ever-shifting; the sex all the more arousing for the raw questions it raises about female longing — for love and affirmation, but also for the safety of isolation, of never quite being known.

Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.

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